On April 23, the streets of Spain’s northeastern region are filled with stands peddling books and roses, typical gifts for a holiday that can be likened to Valentine’s Day. “It’s so much fun. Everyone is so happy,” said Caboti, who lives in Edina.
Today — Wednesday, April 23 — Caboti and other members of the Catalan Casal in Minnesota are importing that vibrant scene with a local flair — a book fair, along with readings and presentations, will run all day at Barnes & Noble in Edina in honor of the holiday.
The Casal, a 75-member nonprofit, strives to “strengthen the relationship between Catalonia and the Midwest and to promote Catalonian culture,” Caboti said. “Casal” means “community center,” though in this case, it’s not a physical place, said its website.
The traditions surrounding St. George’s Day allude to Catalonia’s profound love of reading. As a testimony to that, many of Spain’s publishing houses are in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. In fact, book sales on St. George’s Day account for more than half of Catalonia’s annual total, Caboti said.
Although the Casal always marks the occasion in some way, an event hosted by the Catalan Institute of America at a Barnes & Noble in New York City last year inspired the group to do something similar this time around.
Among the day’s highlights will be a couple of talks with Northfield author John Milton. He’ll discuss his book, “The Fallen Nightingale,” a novel that recreates the world of Enrique Granados, a Catalan composer and pianist.
To pull it off, Milton had to do some digging. And he had to study Spanish and Catalan so he could access related archival materials. “He’ll talk about what it’s like writing a book in a foreign country,” Caboti said.
Milton is working on a new novel set in Barcelona on one St. George’s Day, which he’ll also read from.
In the evening, a panel of local authors will discuss “how place or the culture of a place can change one’s perception,” Caboti said. The panel will include Scott Carpenter (“Theory of Remainders”), Nicole Helget (“Stillwater”), Karen Kelly (“Prospice”) and Sarah Stonich (“Vacationland”).
The event also will include family-friendly activities. Children can craft paper roses, check out Richfield Dual Language School’s poetry awards or watch a play about the legend of “St. George and the Dragon,” about Catalonia’s patron saint.
The tale centers on a dragon that ravages a village. The townspeople are forced to sacrifice their own to the dragon, including a beloved princess. As the story goes, a man named George slays the dragon and saves the princess. The dragon’s blood drips to the ground and a rose appears in its place. George plucks the flower, hands it to the princess and says, “You are free,” she said.
That’s the backstory for giving away roses on this day. The book-giving part started in 1923, when a bookseller wanted to honor Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, she said. Both men died April 23, 1616. This literary aspect got emphasized even more in 1995, when UNESCO made April 23 World Book Day.
At today’s book fair, all kinds of materials about Catalonia will be on hand, along with English versions of books by Catalan authors, and of course, a display of roses, Caboti said.
The event is a good way to build awareness about the 1,000-year-old Catalonia, especially given the political state of affairs, she said. On Dec. 12, 2013, the Parliament of Catalonia agreed to let voters weigh in this fall on whether the autonomous region should be an independent state or a state within a Spanish federation. It’s hard to say for sure whether that will happen or how things will play out, but “Catalonia wants to vote to decide its future,” she said.
Human towers, community
Also during today’s activities at Barnes & Noble, Fèlix Miret-Rovira, well-known in Catalonia, will give a presentation about building “castells” or “human towers,” Caboti said. People form each level of the tower and hold each other up by their own weight. Towers can sometimes go as high as a nine-story building.
The program includes showings of the documentaries, “Verd sobre Blau (Green on Blue)” and “Castellers del Món (Human Towers of the World),” for which Miret-Rovira was a producer. Miret-Rovira, who lives in White Bear Lake, also teaches the activity.
Miret-Rovira once belonged to the Castellers de Vilafranca, a team that builds “human towers.” Miret-Rovira was a “pilaner,” a position in the towers specializing in pillars. “It was very specialized. I was on top of a base of 900 people sometimes,” he said.
Miret-Rovira’s dad was a “casteller” and his brother was a coach for the activity. Once he started participating in the activity, “Instead of wanting to go very high, I always wanted to build a big base,” including as many people as possible, Miret-Rovira said.
The 300-year-old tradition originated as a part of a dance “that finished with a little tower,” he said. It got to the point where people wanted to make the tower bigger and bigger, so it became an activity on its own, and, eventually, it was incorporated into street festivals.
For him, it’s about building community. The towers are “built with the people and for the people, from the bottom to the top,” he said.
Preserving the culture
Meritxell Mondejar, a Minneapolis resident, remembers the Casal’s first get-together on St. George’s Day in 2003. “It felt so good to speak Catalan and celebrate and talk about the politics of our country,” she said.
That’s what prompted her and others to found the Casal. Some families get together every two weeks to immerse the younger generation in the Catalan language. Now, her 8-year-old daughter can relate to her grandmother in Barcelona, she said.
“Our literature is a great vehicle for our language. It’s been the only way that our language was not lost,” she said. Through different periods in Catalonia, people were forbidden to write or speak the language. Keeping it alive is “an important thing for us,” she said.
Many people mistake Catalan for a Spanish dialect, but it developed on its own, about the same time, she said.
Carme Calderer, a former president of the Casal and now a math professor at the University of Minnesota, said the Casal creates a “home away from home.”
Calderer, of Plymouth, said the group “allows us to talk about what’s going on in the country, how we can help,” she said. “Although the U.S. is my adopted country, Catalonia is my soul.”
Similarly, the St. George’s event helps to “spread some of the joy that goes with the day, the joy of learning and reading and being part of a community,” she said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.